Monday, October 28, 2019

Stuart London - A Time and Place for Discovery

By Michael Ward

Maybe it’s the journalist in me, but I’m often attracted to historical research that produces surprises.

Discovering that Isaac Newton, the father of modern physics, had a deep interest in alchemy certainly raised an eyebrow. As did finding out that people used to believe swallows hibernated in mud, rather than migrated, over winter.

But why wouldn’t they? The idea that such a small bird could fly as far as southern Africa would have seemed far-fetched indeed to someone in the 1600s, assuming they had any notion where southern Africa was.

Over time I’ve come to realise that my research ‘revelations’ have said more about me and my 21st century assumptions, than the people of the period I was studying.

Nowhere has this been truer than my examination of England in the mid 17th century. Of course I knew about the civil war, Cromwell’s Commonwealth and the Great Fire but I still expected to learn much on my voyage of discovery. However, I had no inkling of just how many ‘oh really?’ moments I would encounter along the way, such as burrowing birds and Newton’s alchemy.

My first surprise was that so much change was compressed into such a short period. In just over 25 years, the country experienced civil war, regicide, a republic, and a restoration of the monarchy.

Any one of these would have produced sufficient shock waves to reverberate for a decade. But to have experienced each in rapid succession, followed by 1666, a hellish year of fire and plague, meant that, for Londoners in particular, it must have been both a formative and terrifying time to be alive.

Consider experiencing the politically divisive furore of five or six consecutive Brexits between now and 2040 plus a conflict that accounted for proportionally more of the country’s population than World War One, followed by a pandemic that wiped out a quarter of the people in London and a blaze that consumed much of city. Then take away the ability to know what was happening and why, and you begin to get an inkling.

As my research continued, I realised this period also witnessed fundamental changes in science, medicine and commerce, as well as politics and religion. Beliefs firmly held for centuries were now being challenged, almost on a daily basis, by a constant stream of newly discovered, empirically driven knowledge, forced to the surface by an unquenchable spirit of enquiry.

Public Domain image of the type of printing presses
which would help transform 17th-century England

There was a swathe of new thinking. I’ve already mentioned Newton, the ‘father of modern physics’. Historians have enjoyed using such titles, with many paternity suits still argued on behalf of the sciences in particular. Nevertheless, the 17th century had more than its fair share of claimants: Galileo –the father of modern science (according to Einstein, no less), Francis Bacon - scientific method, Francesco Redi – experimental biology, Robert Boyle – modern chemistry, Marcello Malpigi – microscopic anatomy, and so on, leaving supporters of Rene Descartes and Pierre de Fermat to fight over analytical geometry.

My third realisation was that the key players of this period did not always behave to type. Several of the grandest lords in the kingdom, such as Essex and Warwick, were early and powerful advocates of the Parliamentary cause, as were a number of leading merchants, including some within the more conservative Merchant Adventurers. Equally, kings were seen as guardians of the status quo yet radical thinkers in science and medicine benefitted from their patronage.

William Harvey is a case in point. At the start of the 17th century, the views of Galen, a Greek physician born in 210 AD, still dominated medical practice throughout Europe, and his anatomical theories, including the body’s circulatory system, were largely uncontested. In 1628, William Harvey published ‘De Motu Cordis’ demonstrating that people had a single blood system which circulated continuously throughout their bodies. This flatly contradicted the accepted Galean doctrine that organs consumed blood which had to be replenished by either the liver of the heart, and each had their own circulatory networks.

William Harvey, demonstrating his theory of circulation
of Wellcome. Click HERE for image attribution

Harvey expected a storm of opposition and he wasn’t disappointed. Yet it only took 30 years for his ideas to become more widely accepted, and Galen’s 1,400 year grip on medicine to be broken, such was the iconoclastic spirit of the age.

Yet it was King James I who supported Harvey’s research by allowing him to join his court when hunting game, so that Harvey could dissect fallen animals immediately, in situ, and observe their blood flow. (However, James’ son Charles 1 later extracted a favour in return, requiring the eminent physician to dodge the musket fire at the Battle of Edgehill where, as the King’s ‘Physician in Ordinary’, he is said to have looked after the two royal princes while tending the wounded.)

As I delved deeper into the plethora of 17th century discoveries and developments, I began to notice a form of symbiotic relationship between some, despite being in different fields. I would often pull at, then follow, a thread of research in, say, scientific advances, only to discover its impact on something completely different, such as religious belief. In the 17th century, it seems one new way of interpreting the universe often led to another.

So, from Galileo onwards, many of the advances in astrology were driven by the fervent search for improved navigational tools by the expanding merchant sector. Improvements in printing technology led to a proliferation of unlicensed printing presses in London which came to have a major impact on political discourse and the spread of radical ideas, before and during the civil war. Again it is notable how quickly this development was understood and seized upon, this time by political activists including the King’s supporters, in this age of experimentation.

Another example can be found in the dramatic population shifts of this period. In just 15 years, from the late 1620s to the early 1640s, some 80,000 people sailed from England’s shores, with up to 60,000 of them crossing the Atlantic, an enormous figure for that time. A significant number of these were Puritans, wishing to found a New World where they could practise their religion freely.

Puritans left England in large numbers to set up colonies in the New World to practise their religion.
This Public Domain image shows Puritans burning a book they deemed to be heretical in Massachusetts Bay. 

One would expect such a rapid depopulation to have a concentrated impact in London, by far England’s largest city, especially when combined with its high mortality rate. Yet simultaneous advances in commerce meant that London’s growth did not stall. It actually increased, the rising economy driven in no small part by the expansion of merchant trade to all points of the globe including the Caribbean and the Americas. Each week hundreds would arrive from the surrounding counties, eager to share in the city’s new found wealth.

This more than compensated for the mass emigration partly fuelled by religious change. However, many of the new arrivals soon discovered the streets of London to be paved with something far less pleasant than gold. The city’s existing housing stock and barely rudimentary sanitation were overwhelmed by the needs of newcomers and much of London descended into a disease-ridden squalor.

This, of course, added more fuel to the political unrest, and so interlocking cycles of change and challenge continued to drive the English 17th century into the uncharted depths of civil strife, setting brother against brother and father against son.

Further reading

Adamson, J. (2009). The Nobel Revolt. London. Phoenix.

Brenner, R. (2003). Merchants and Revolution. London. Verso.

Evans, J. (2018). Emigrants. London. Orion.

Rees, J. (2016). The Leveller Revolution. London. Verso.


Michael Ward is a former BBC journalist and academic. His debut novel “Rags of Time” is set in 1639, with England sliding into civil war. Spice trader Thomas Tallant returns from India to find the overcrowded streets of London seething with sedition. Soon he is sucked into the city’s turbulence, accused of murder.

The book follows his desperate attempts to find the real killer and clear his name, helped by the enigmatic Elizabeth Seymour, astrologer and mathematician whose thirst for knowledge is only matched by her addiction to tobacco and the gaming tables. Can Elizabeth untangle the web of deceit threatening to pull Tom under?

Early reviews of ‘Rags of Time’ have described it as “a wonderful debut” with an “outstanding story”, noting that “…the author has clearly done all the hard work by researching the period and manages to impart that knowledge without any big information dumps.”

The sequel is now under development.

Connect with Michael: Amazon page Rags of Time

Amazon US 

GoodReads book page

Author’s email:

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